Domain Migration Checklist
Domain Migration. Website Launch. Those two sets of words can strike fear within any Technical SEO expert. There’s a lot that can go wrong. When something does go wrong, there’s likely a subsequent drop in organic search rankings.
Fortunately, you’re in the right place to assist with a domain migration and website launch.
Here’s the short domain migration checklist. Full explanations are below.
Phase I: Pre-Launch Testing
- Review Page Templates
- Review Internal Links
- Identify crawl-time issues
- Set-up custom 404 page
- Review XML sitemaps
- Check Redirects
- Crawl the site before migration
- Review Analytics Setup
Phase II: Launch Day Spot Checks
- Spot check search engine crawling (Markitors)
- Carry out Search Console actions (Markitors)
- Redirection Checks (Markitors – 10pm Friday)
- Meta and Copy Checks
- Update PPC Campaigns (Markitors)
- Update Social Media Profiles
Phase III: Post Launch
- Monitor Search Console data
- Backlink Outreach
- Keyword Tracking
- Performance Report
Domain Migration Checklist: Pre-Launch Testing
Review Page Templates
Review each page template and make sure all essential SEO features are in place and optimized. We’re talking page titles, meta descriptions, headings and image alt text as well as technical attributes such as robots directives, canonical tags, hreflang tags, and AMP tags.
Make sure that the canonical tags references the new site. Otherwise, canonical tags referencing the old domain can cause a lot of problems.
Review Internal Links
Next, review your new site’s internal linking structure including main and secondary navigation, body content links, header/footer links, breadcrumbs, pagination links, and cross site links on international sites. Internal linking is the backbone of a site’s link equity flow. Consider your vertical linking – from the homepage to deeper pages – as well as horizontally linking to neighboring relevant pages.
Make sure the new site doesn’t have a deeper site architecture than your previous version, as this could reduce your site’s organic search visibility.
Put simply, if a user needs to click too many times get to a page, their user experience won’t be great. Similarly, search engines don’t like pages that are hard to find and will demote them in search results. Ideally, each page should be accessible within 3-4 clicks from anywhere on the site. The most important pages should be accessible via 1-2 clicks maximum.
Identify crawl-time issues
Crawl the new site in the staging environment. Be on the hunt for broken links, incorrect canonical tags, pages with a non-200 server response, internal redirects, soft 404s, unintentional noindex pages or nofollow links.
Set-up custom 404 page
Ensure your new site has a custom 404 page that serves a 404 server response. The page should include your site’s header and footer, links to the most popular sections of your site and analytics tracking code so you can easily identify the most visited 404 pages and take action.
Review XML sitemaps
Check the new site’s XML sitemaps and make sure they include all indexable URLs. Also make sure that non-indexable URLs such as 404s, redirects or canonicalized pages are excluded to help monitoring the site’s indexation levels more accurately.
The old sitemap should remain in Google Search Console. Once the new sitemap is created, you’ll want to add that to Search Console as well. You can speed up the process by requesting that Google crawl the old sitemap. This ensures that they’ll discover the redirects naturally, and can update their index accordingly.
Test redirect mapping in the staging environment to make sure all one-to-one redirects work as expected. If you can, test the more generic redirect rules too.
Crawl The Site Before Migration
Use a tool like Screaming Frog to crawl your website. Save the crawl for a future reference check.
Having a full list of the URLs from your old site ensures that nothing gets lost during the transition.
Now would be the time to pinpoint crawl errors and existing redirects on the old site, just to make sure they are transferred over in the migration.
Identify internal links that point to non-existent 404 pages – and then remove or replace these links. No point in moving over some broken links.
Now would also be the time to eliminate redirect chains and redirect loops by updating any links that lead to redirected pages. These links need to point directly to existing pages, as you’ll want to avoid a redirect chain after the domain migration.
Site crawls are not fail proof. Sometimes they won’t crawl every page on your website. Orphaned pages won’t show up on crawls, as there are no links pointing crawlers to these pages. So, be sure to rely on your sitemaps, databases, and Analytics tools to identify all pages that will be part of the migration.
Review Analytics Setup: Analytics & Search Console
This is the time to check your analytics tracking is properly set-up, including any advanced analytics features you need (such as event tracking, E-commerce tracking etc.).
Install Google Analytics on the new domain so that you can test this internally before launching the site to users. Experiencing missing data in Google Analytics during the transition stays with you long past the migration, and it’s important to watch traffic trends during the migration process.
You will need to set up a new property in Google Search Console for the new domain. Then, you’ll want to submit both the old and new sitemaps to Search Console. Even with the help of the change of address tool, enabling Google to discover redirects on the old sitemaps helps drive home the message to pay attention to the new sitemap.
Domain Migration Checklist: Launch Day
Oh hey, it’s launch day! (Or, in most cases, launch night in the wee hours of a lonely weekend.)
Spot Check Search Engine Crawling
Use a crawler tool like Screaming Frog to test out these items:
- Robots.txt file for any major crawling issues.
- Server responses across desktop and mobile for key pages.
- Canonical tags for errors.
- For unintentional noindex or nofollow directives.
- That search engines and users are treated in the same way (i.e. no cloaking issues).
Carry Out Search Console Actions
No major issues? Alright! Now it’s time to jump into the search console to find out what Google thinks about your new site and help crawl and index it faster.
- Use the Blocked Resources report to check for critical issues.
- Use Fetch as Google on every single page type (i.e. homepage, a category page, a product page) across desktop and mobile.
- Set the targeted country using the International Targeting report (if applicable).
- Test each sitemap for errors and submit it.
- Upload a separate sitemap (or just a list of URLs in a text file) with the old site’s indexable pages to help search engines discover the redirects that are in place.
- Configure the URL parameters to deal with duplicate content issues.
- Upload the disavow file, if applicable.
- Lastly, use the change of address tool if moving host or domain.
- Old URLs redirect correctly to the new site.
- Redirects are implemented as 301 (permanent redirects).
- Legacy redirects haven’t been lost.
- There aren’t any long redirect chains.
- There aren’t too many internal redirects.
- Redirect rules work as expected, including…
- www vs non-www URL requests.
- http vs https URL requests.
- lower case vs upper case URL requests.
- requests for any legacy mobile sites.
Meta and Copy Checks
Make sure the following have been successfully migrated:
- Page titles
- Meta descriptions
- Internal links
- Alt text on images
Make changes to your PPC campaigns. You’ll want to make sure these campaigns not only point to the right place, but also have the correct url in the advertisement. Once updating on the Google Ads side of things, you’ll want to make sure your attribution is tracking properly in Google Analytics.
Make updates to your social media profiles, with the correct name and link. Edit your bio signature, bio paragraph, and anything else that was pointing to your old domain.
Domain Migration Checklist: Post-Launch
Monitor Search Console Data
- Regularly check the Index Status report to closely monitor indexation.
- Monitor the sitemap’s indexation levels.
- Keep an eye on the Crawl Stats report in case the number of pages Google crawls per day drops.
- Download and review the Crawl Errors report daily, particularly the ‘Not Found’ URLs. Consider redirecting the more valuable ones.
- Review the HTML Improvements report to find missing or duplicate title tags.
- Look out for mobile usability and structured data errors.
It’s also worth checking your site’s server log files, to find out which pages get less frequently crawled, spot frequently visited pages that are now of value and take further action, if required.
Now it’s time to do outreach to high authority domains linking to your old domain. Develop a template explaining the reason for the migration, with a request to update a link to the new domain.
- Identify high quality backlinks using an SEO tool like Ahrefs
- Find contact information for site
- Conduct outreach with a backlink outreach request
Check how many keywords are being tracked daily; aim for at least 500 high-volume keywords that were driving traffic to the legacy site, including:
- Brand and non-brand terms.
- Head and mid-tail terms.
- Seasonal and non-seasonal terms.
- Across desktop and mobile.
- Across different markets (if migrating international sites)
Make sure keyword tracking is enabled before the new site goes live, otherwise you won’t be able to make pre and post migration ranking comparisons!
By now you’re probably dying to find out how your new site is performing, but try to be patient – it can take 1-2 months before you’ll have reliable data to report on. Google needs some time to fully crawl your new site and update the search results.
Some of the areas to pay more attention to for trends or anomalies include:
- Desktop visibility
- Mobile visibility
- Organic sessions
- Bounce rate
- Conversion rate
Last but not least, compare pre- and post performance on:
- Total number of indexed pages.
- Submitted vs Indexed pages submitted via the XML sitemaps.
- Pages receiving at least one organic visit.
- Number of ‘not found’ pages.
- Site speed scores and metrics